Fomer BBC correspondent Michael Cole on Clive Lewis’ ‘racism’ comments
PUBLISHED: 12:20 10 November 2015 | UPDATED: 12:54 10 November 2015
Former BBC correspondent Michael Cole, who worked for the corporation for 20 years and lives in Suffolk, had this to say on Clive Lewis’ comments on racism in the BBC.
It was a bad mistake by Clive Lewis, the recently elected Labour MP for Norwich South, to accuse an unnamed manager at BBC East of racial discrimination because Mr Lewis was not appointed a presenter of Look East.
Mr Lewis told members of the National Union of Journalists that, when he was “pushing to present a regional news programme”, he encountered a racial “glass ceiling” that kept black staff down.
I must inform Mr Lewis that in this life, we do not always get what we want when we want it, as every adult knows. When I joined BBC East on 1 January, 1969, as Look East’s first staff reporter, I had been working in news for six years, having qualified as a journalist with distinction and a special prize. I had worked for an international news agency, UPI, several newspapers, including The Times and the EDP, and as a reporter for About Anglia. I was young and ambitious, as I feel sure was Mr Lewis when he was at the BBC.
But I did not want to be a presenter, stuck in a studio. My ambition was to be a BBC TV News correspondent, covering major stories at home and abroad.
While working for Look East, I applied for several London vacancies. I was always rejected. That wasn’t because I was tall, blonde and English, even though the appointments board was made up of people who were short, dark and Celtic – a Scot, a Welshman and an editor from Northern Ireland.
It was because they didn’t think I was right for the job, at that time.
I redoubled my efforts, working scores of weekend shifts in London for no extra pay with regular tours of duty to Belfast during the worst of The Troubles. I even worked abroad, in France and Belgium, for the national bulletin while still based in Norwich.
The BBC’s Norwich news editor, Dick Robinson, and regional television manager, Ralph “Johnny” Johnson, encouraged my ambition and five years on, I secured the job I wanted.
My first job was covering the Yom Kippur War of October 1973 in the Middle East.
My point is that it is too easy to blame prejudice when things don’t go to your liking. And I think it is profoundly wrong.
Mr Lewis is right to say,”I’m extremely grateful to the BBC for the chances it did give me”.
But he is both unfair and unwise to blame an unnamed BBC manager because he didn’t get what he wanted. I kept trying. Mr Lewis has left broadcasting for politics.
Each to his own taste, as the French say.
I wish him well but, as the founding Father of the Chapel of the Norwich Broadcasting Branch of the NUJ, I must assure Mr Lewis of one sure thing: there are no institutions in this country, public or private, where a person of mixed race or from an ethnic minority would experience fewer instances of racism, overt or disguised by a glass ceiling, than he or she would ever encounter at the BBC. Mr Lewis should consider withdrawing what I believe to be an unjustified slur on his former colleagues at BBC East.
He should also offer a private and profound apology to the unnamed manager he accused of being a racist in his ill-judged speech to an influential audience.
I am pleased to see that, following reaction to his speech, Mr Lewis has now clarified his views and says that he is not accusing any BBC manager of being a racist. Instead, he accuses the BBC of being institutionally racist.
As a fairly new MP, I think he is in for a shock. I covered five general elections for the BBC and I know that he will find more racists to the square yard in the chamber of the House of Commons than would ever be tolerated by the BBC in any of its newsrooms, regional or national. And anyway, journalists as a breed are generally free from such base instincts.
Playing the race card is rarely a good idea and in this instance I think it has spoiled his hand.